"You invited that Fraser boy over for dinner? Well, just make sure he stays on the runners. I don't want him tracking mud all over my nice carpets."
"Don't be weird, Mom, Ben's always clean."
"Boys are many things, Mark, but clean isn't one of them. And I don't want to be getting any calls from that holier-than-thou grandmother of his asking why he wasn't home before dark, you hear me?"
Ben reminded himself that Mrs. Smithbauer probably didn't realize he could hear her. His hearing was unusually acute. He examined his socks and the cuffs of his jeans for mud. He thought his boots had mostly protected him, but--was that a little patch of dirt on his right knee?
"What are you doing?" Mark asked from the doorway.
Ben flushed and straightened. "Nothing."
"It's okay, my mom says you can have dinner with us. Stay on the runners, though. She's all weird about her carpets. They're ugly anyway."
Ben thought the carpets were quite nice, actually. But the plastic walkways that led through every room made him uncomfortable. What if he tripped and stumbled onto the immaculate expanse of pale blue or white? It was hard to concentrate even on Mark's loud, confident chatter.
"Do you want to spend the night?" Mark asked. "I could loan you pajamas. We'll trade hockey cards, it'll be ace."
The idea of sleeping in Mark's room, with Mark sleeping on the bed a few feet away, made Ben feel weird and feverish. But what would Mrs. Smithbauer think? What if he spilled something on Mark's pajamas--or worse, had one of those embarrassing dreams that had started recently? Ben turned hot and cold at the thought. And were there carpet runners in Mark's room too?
"You know my grandmother hates me to be out too late," he said quietly. It wasn't really a lie. She did hate him to be out too late, as Mark knew perfectly well. Ben was always embarrassed when she came and broke up their hockey games. But that night she had specifically told him it would be all right to spend the night at Mark's if he called to let her know.
"Whatever," Mark said, shrugging.
Fraser stood at the edge of the carpeted room, watching Ray set up the surveillance equipment. He talked constantly as he worked. Usually Fraser enjoyed it. He let the sound of Ray's voice wash over him, drowning out the hum of traffic and people and Chicago. There was something intimate about it.
But today it was like nails on a chalkboard. Worse, because nails on a chalkboard had never actually bothered Fraser very much. Ray was talking about love at first sight and his infatuation with the woman who had nearly killed him the day before with her reckless driving. Fraser thought about his own first meeting with Ray. He didn't think Ray had liked him very much. He had certainly not been impressed with Ray's dedication to duty.
If he kissed Ray, Ray would stop talking. He would stop talking about this woman and perhaps there would be a period of blessed silence, and then at least if he started again he would be talking about Fraser.
There was no furniture, though. Even if Ray's response were positive, they would have to do--whatever happened next--against the wall or on the floor. They might knock over the expensive equipment--or lose pieces of it in the carpet. Fraser doubted even his own ability to locate a tiny screw in the brightly geometric fuzz. They might stain the carpet. The Chicago Police Department had put down a security deposit.
Eventually Ray stopped talking. He took pictures in silence, his hands unexpectedly sure on the camera. Fraser could hear a couple arguing in the apartment above them, a woman yelling at her infant son in the street below, and a car accident--a "fender bender," as Ray would call it--several blocks away. He spread his jacket carefully on the floor to protect the carpet and practiced headstands on it. It was unfortunate that the idea that standing on one's head would send the blood back to one's brain was merely a popular fallacy.
Ray kissed him, crowding him against the wall, his badge digging into Fraser's chest. "Christ, Fraser," Ray breathed against his mouth. "I thought you were a goner for sure that time."
Nothing like this had ever happened between the two of them before, and considering how much Fraser had wished for it, he knew he should just let it happen. He should kiss Ray back in Mrs. Levinsky's tiny bedroom while uniformed policemen took witness statements and bagged evidence in the next room.
Ray shifted, pushing a leg between Fraser's thighs, and Fraser couldn't hold it back any longer.
"We're getting blood on Mrs. Levinsky's carpet," he pointed out.
A few minutes later, after Ray had stormed out (leaving a bloody impression of his knuckles on Mrs. Levinsky's bedroom wall in the process), Fraser tried to imagine the same scenario going differently. This time he would abandon manners and conscience and simply seize what the moment offered him. But even as he imagined kissing Ray with abandon, sliding his hands under Ray's jacket and tangling his fingers in Ray's holster, showing Ray with his impulsiveness and focus how very much Ray meant to him--the two of them grappling on Mrs. Levinsky's carpet, too overcome by passion and affection to care for anything else--even then, another part of him was cataloging the bloody handprints they would leave, the mud and river water dripping from Ray's motorcycle boots, the inevitable bodily fluids that might spatter and stain.
Fraser did not know how to behave with abandon. At least, he didn't know how to behave with abandon and not regret it. If Ray couldn't understand that, then perhaps this was for the best.
It was months after Ray's departure before Fraser could convince himself that returning to Chicago didn't mean turning his back on his responsibilities. It was several months more before he was ready to accept that snow and silence simply didn't have the effect on him that they once had. Something was missing, and Fraser couldn't hide from himself that the missing something was Ray. And Ray. Two loud Chicago voices and two hands on his shoulder.
He should have known that it wouldn't be that simple. He should have remembered how quickly Ray and Ray overturned personal boundaries, and how easy it had always seemed for them to know exactly what they wanted. Fraser didn't know what he wanted at all. He did know, however, that when he walked into the twenty-seventh precinct and found Ray bent over Ray's shoulder, his blond hair brushing Ray's close-shaven scalp, he felt a sharp pang of loss that only worsened when Ray turned around and he saw Ray's cross gleaming at his throat. A quick inventory yielded further signs of intimacy: the edge of fading teeth marks at the collar of Ray's t-shirt in a familiar bite pattern; Ray's bracelet on Ray's wrist; and a faint scent of garlic and oregano emanating from Ray's skin when he gave Fraser a welcoming hug.
They invited him over for dinner. To be precise, Ray invited him over for dinner and Ray promised to come over as soon as he'd dropped off his mother's dry cleaning. Fraser accepted, of course. He was happy to see them. He was glad they had found contentment with each other. He couldn't allow jealousy to ruin his two closest friendships or mar Ray and Ray's happiness with the slightest hint of sour grapes.
Despite all his good resolutions, he found himself silent and stiff as Ray grilled him--but that was unfair. As Ray inquired into his plans.
"I don't know," he said. "I'd thought of staying, but--"
Ray's wide, familiar smile started an ache deep inside him. "Benny, that's fantastic! Me and Kowalski, we hoped, you know, but--look, maybe it's too soon to talk about this, but both of us, well--" He stepped in close and put a hand on Fraser's arm. The scent of him was at once familiar and different--the same aftershave smelling of ambergris and coriander and the same underlying scent that was Ray's unique signature, but he'd started using a different detergent. His breath smelled different, too, like peppermint. To suit a preference of Ray's, perhaps. When Ray's hand slid up his arm, Fraser dropped his glass of milk on Ray's brand-new carpet.
"Don't worry about it, Fraser," Ray said easily, coming in from the kitchen. "I'll just lay down some laundry to soak it up and we'll deal with it tomorrow."
"You're such a slob," Ray said, affection underlying his distaste. "Leave it, Benny, I'll clean it up later."
Fraser spent the next half-hour carefully removing every trace of the milk with water, Woolite, and one of Ray's brand-new hand towels in, he couldn't help noticing, Ray's favorite color. If he let the stain soak into the backing of the carpet, or worse, seep down into the flooring below, it would sour until the whole apartment reeked of spoiled milk.
Both Rays insisted on helping him look for an apartment. The first one they visited had wall-to-wall white carpeting. Fraser stopped in the doorway, knowing it was foolish, perhaps even insane, but nevertheless feeling physically incapable of taking another step.
"No carpets," he said sharply. He could tell from the looks on their faces that he sounded inappropriately emotional for the subject matter. When had he lost the ability to sound neutral? Ray and Ray put their hands on his shoulder, one on each side, and he went absolutely still.
"Listen, Benny," Ray began, sounding determined and discouraged. Fraser felt another pang of guilt that he was making things so difficult for his friends. Just because he was unhappy, that was no reason Ray and Ray should suffer. "You--we want you to stay. You know that. We were hoping you were here for good this time. But you don't seem happy."
"Yeah, Fraser," Ray said. They were--they were one-two punching him. Fraser felt another, greater pang, this time of loss. He wasn't part of their duet anymore. "I mean, we thought, you came back, that was a good sign, right? Like, maybe the three of us could--but if you're not happy, you should go home. Maybe we could come and visit, maybe even--"
"No," Fraser said with difficulty. "I simply--I would prefer an apartment without carpets." Ray's hand was still on his shoulder. Fraser was conscious of the placement of every finger.
"Fraser," Ray said. "I know this is moving way too fast, 'cause me and Vecchio have had months to get used to the idea of wanting this and we don't even know if you want us, but--ah, fuck it." He leaned forward and kissed Fraser for the second time in his life.
Fraser tensed and pulled back. What must Ray be thinking--but Ray was still at his back, calm and steady and not seeming to mind at all. His hand slid up to where Fraser's neck joined his shoulder, and his thumb began rubbing slow circles on Fraser's shoulder where he was stiffest.
Ray watched him, jittery and demanding and afraid. Fraser had forgotten what it felt like to have that focused on him, all that desire and rage. "The two of you have talked about this?" he asked slowly.
Ray laughed, so close to his ear that Fraser jumped. "Oh, yeah, Benny," he said in a low voice. "We've talked about it a lot."
"I thought I had lost my chance," Fraser said, then winced. He hadn't meant to say anything that maudlin.
"You don't run out of chances with us, Fraser," Ray said, and leaned towards him again.
Fraser tried not to say it, he tried and tried. But the compulsion was too strong. "Not on the carpet."
There was a painful silence, and then Ray laughed. "You mean it really was the carpet? That time?"
Fraser leaned back to remind himself that this time, Ray was here too. "Perhaps not entirely," he said, lifting a hand to cover Ray's, still on his shoulder. "But yes."
They ended up in the kitchen. The yellow and blue linoleum hurt Fraser's eyes, but it didn't matter. Ray investigated his front with the jumpy curiosity of a kitten--sucking at his pulse point, pinching his nipples, sticking his tongue in Fraser's navel and snickering when Fraser moaned. It should have been distracting, but instead it was the perfect counterpoint to Ray's chest pressed against his back and Ray's hand stroking him rhythmically, patient and firm. All too soon Fraser felt his pleasure building. He opened his mouth to warn them, but evidently silent communication was like riding a bicycle, because Ray seemed to know. Before Fraser could say anything, he fell to his knees, wrapping his mouth around Fraser's penis.
"Jesus," Ray muttered in his ear, and Fraser was lost.
"See? No muss, no fuss," Ray said a few moments later, rising cheerily to his feet and licking his lips.
"Come here, Kowalski." Ray pulled Ray into a kiss. Fraser had tasted his own semen in another man's mouth before. But Ray was tasting him in Ray's mouth. Somehow that was a completely novel and entirely overwhelming thought.
"Stop lollygagging, Ray," he said. "If we're going to find me an apartment with all hardwood floors by nightfall, we had better move quickly."